Until recently, the phrase "outdoor furniture trends" was an oxymoron. People had a wrought-iron chaise lounge with waterproof cushions and a round metal table with an umbrella at the center. That was before the back yard became an outdoor room, and some Americans started spending as much time on their patios as in their dens.
Now furniture for your deck can cost as much as for your living room. The black-fiber-webbing and aluminum chair in the McGuire's Archetype collection, for instance, retails for around $1,700.
Another sure sign that outdoor furnishings are important: Big name interior designers such as Larry Laslo are coming out with their own casual furniture collections.
For the first time, real design trends can be seen in garden furniture across the board -- from the merchandise of upscale companies such as Lloyd/Flanders to the handsome and affordable pieces Michael Graves designs for Target.
There's another reason for the unprecedented variety of patio pieces available this season. In the past few years manufacturers have come up with materials tough enough to stand up to rain and the sun's ultraviolet rays yet stylish and comfortable enough to work in the living room.
"Plus a broader range of colors, fabrics, trims and finishes allows shoppers to customize their outdoor furnishings the same way they customize a sofa for the living room," says Jaclyn Hirschhaut of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, a North Carolina-based trade organization.
Certain pieces are, of course, timeless. Consider the Adirondack chair, a design that's made summer living easy for more than a hundred years. Now L.L.Bean has made the classic painted oak chair retro chic by offering it in not only green but also natural, white, denim blue, yellow and red.
Retro chic is just one of several current trends in home design reflected in this year's crop of outdoor furnishings. Here are some others:
Furniture designers' fascination with mixed materials continues unabated. This season's most current outdoor furniture combines the warmth of teak with sleek aluminum, such as the chair from Veneman's Silver Collection.
The mix 'n' match trend also means consumers are buying their casual furniture from several different manufacturers and creating an eclectic look on their decks.
The clean lines of Japanese design, so influential in home furnishings now, are particularly suited to outdoor furniture. Some of the best new collections have a pared-down style that reveals the furniture's very essence. And the classic materials of outdoor furnishings -- teak, bamboo, wicker, rattan and their synthetic counterparts -- can give a chair or chaise lounge an Asian feel while avoiding an overt reference.
One of Ethan Allen's new collections of outdoor furniture, British Isles, has British colonial styling. Art nouveau influences can be seen in Transitions, the other collection. If contemporary patio furniture doesn't appeal, but you don't want to seem old-fashioned, designers are offering plenty of classic styles to choose from.
The living is easy
When you create a room outdoors, you need more than just a chaise lounge. Today's casual furniture collections offer daybeds, serving carts, occasional tables, gliders, swivel rockers, storage benches and ottomans.
And don't forget the accessories. Items such as hurricane lanterns and other weather-resistant decorative artifacts give your outdoor room a personality all its own.
How to outfit your outdoors:
Some furnishings are available through interior designers, or you can call the numbers below to find retailers in your area.
Ethan Allen Galleries
8727 Loch Raven Blvd.
Towson, Md. 21286
6612 Baltimore National Pike
Catonsville, Md. 21228
800-526-9894, Ext. 162